In which Mr. Poe of Baltimore, renowned theater and literary critic, makes clear and well-known his admiration of Mrs. Mowatt's presence and performances.

 

Mr. Poe's Favorite Actress

In the summer of 1845, the paths of Edgar Allan Poe and Anna Cora Mowatt crisscrossed for a few brief, memorable months.  Both were experiencing success in careers that they ultimately would not be known for. Poe was the editor and owner of The Broadway Journal. Anna Cora Mowatt had just made her debut as actress. Each had made a literary mark that would give them lasting fame earlier that same year. Poe published “The Raven” in late January. Mowatt’s play “Fashion” had debuted in March.

We have no video of Mowatt. There is only one extant photograph of her. It was taken after she had retired from the stage and had been through a long illness. However, we do have Poe’s vivid descriptions of her as she appeared on stage.
 
These descriptions reveal something about the writer as well. Poe’s relationship with his mother, the actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe is frequently cited as a source of pain and misery in his life and works. However here in his celebration of the theatre, we see a different side of Poe as he warmly embraces the memory of his mother and proudly reclaims his theatrical heritage.

Poe begins the first of his series of reviews of performances on July 19, 1845 by gently chastising Mowatt for her choice of venue. Although Mowatt had debuted at the Park Theatre, the performances Poe would witness took place at Niblo Garden, a Broadway theater near Prince Street with considerably less prestige than the Park. As he puts it:

Mrs. Mowatt owes it to herself to maintain a certain dignity; and, although this certain dignity be perposterous, in fact in the fiction of the world's view it is all important. A lady so well-conected, and so well established in the public eye by her literary reputation, could have no difficulty in coming upon the stage in her own fashion, and almost on her own terms. The Park, as a place of her debut, was, of course, unobjectionable, although in a negative sense. She lost no caste by coming out there, but the fact cannot be disputed that she would have gained much by first appearing in London, and presenting herself to her countrymen and countrywomen with the eclat of a foreign reputation. We say this, with a bitter sense of our national degradation, and suserviency to British opinion; -- we say it, moreover, with a consciouness that Mrs. Mowatt should not have done this thing however much it would have furthered her concerns.1
Eliza Poe
 
Eliza Poe
 

Here Poe shows an awareness of the concern with maintaining social respectability while engaging in a career as a theatrical professional that obsessed Mowatt in her writing of Autobiography of an Actress. As if directly addressing the friends and relatives who shunned her after her debut on the stage, he launches into a full-throated defense of the theatre as an institution:

Niblos
Niblo's Garden, New York, circa 1840

We have no sympathies with the prejudices which would entirely have dissuaded Mrs. Mowatt from the stage. There is no cant more contemptible than that which habitually decries the theatrical profession – a profession which, in itself, embraces all that can elevate and ennoble, and absolutely nothing to degrade.  If some – if many – or if even nearly all of its members are dissolute, this is an evil arising not from the profession itself, but  from the unhappy circumstances which surround it. With all these circumstances, Mrs. Mowatt has, at present, no concern. With talents, enthusiasm, and energy, she will both honor the stage and derive from it honor.  In the mere name of actress she can surely find nothing to dread – nothing, or she would be unworthy of the profession – not the profession unworthy of her.  The theatre is ennobled by its high facilities for the development of genius – facilities no afforded elsewhere in equal degree. By the spirit of genius, we say, it is ennobled – it is sanctified – beyond the sneer of the fool or the cant of the hypocrite.

The actor of talent is poor at heart indeed, if he does not look with contempt upon the mediocrity even of a king. The writer of this article himself is the son of an actress – has invariably made it his boast – and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well-born, hesitated no to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.2

After taking some time to discuss the play in which she appears, Poe begins to paint the first of his vivid word-portraits of Mowatt:


Of Mrs. Mowatt and of her acting, we have to speak only in terms of enthusiastic admiration.  We have never had the pleasure of seeing her before -- and we presude that there are many of our readers who have never seen her. Her figure is slight -- even fragile -- but eminitely graceful. Her face is a remarkably fine one, and of that precise character best adapted to the stage. The forehead is, perhaps, the least prepossessing feature, although it is by no means an unintellectual one. Hair light auburn, in rich profusion, and always arranged with exquisite taste. The eyes are gray, brilliant and expressive, without being full. The nose is well formed, with the Roman curve, and indicative of energy. This quality is also shown in the somewhat excessive prominence of the chin. The mouth is large, with brilliant and even teeth and flexible lips, capable of the most instantaneous and effective variations of expression. A more radiantly beautiful smile it is quite impossible to conceive. Mrs. Mowatt has also the personal advantage of a profusion of rich auburn hair.

Her manner on the stage is distinguished by an ease and self-possession which do credit to a veteran.  Her step is very graceful and assured – indeed all her movements evince the practiced elocutionist. We watched her with the closest scrutiny and not for one instant did we observe in her an attitude of the least awkwardness, or even constraint, while many of her seemingly impulsive gestures spoke in loud terms of the woman of genius – of the poet deeply imbued with the truest sentiment of the beauty of motion.

Her voice is rich and voluminous, and though by no means powerful, so well managed as to seem so. Her utterance is singularly distinct – its sole blemish being an occasional Anglicism of accent, adopted probably from her instructor.  In this respect, no actress in America is her equal, for she reads not theatrically, but with the emphasis of nature.3

 
One needs very little additional prompting to come up with a very complete mental image of Mowatt emoting before the footlights.ACM as Lucia

Poe would next speak of Mowatt on July 26. The play at Niblo's this time was "The Bride of Lammermoor."  Once more, the writer was enchanted with the actress, but was in the throes of a pain familar to all book-lovers, a bad adaptation of  a beloved novel -- or in this case, a bad adaptation of a beloved opera:

If in all the literature of fiction, there is a character for which Mrs. Mowatt is peculiarly adapted, it is Lucy Ashton. If the authoress of Fashion knew her own strength, she would confine herself, nearly altogether, to depicting in letters as well as on stage, the more gentle sentiments and more profound passions. Her sympathy with the latter is evidently more intense. In the utterance of the truly generous – of the really noble – of the unaffectedly passionate – we see her bosom heave – her cheek grow pale – her limbs tremble – her chiseled lip quiver – and nature’s own tear rush impetuously to the eye. Nor is it the freshness of the heart which will provide for her the greenest laurels. It is this enthusiasm – this well of deep feelings – which should be made to prove to her an exhaustless source of fame! As actress it is to her a mine of wealth – worth all the dawdling instructions in the world. Mrs. Mowatt as she now stands, is quite as able to give lessons in stage routine to any actor or actress in America as is any actor or actress to give lessons to her. Let her throw all support to the winds -- trust proudly to her own grace of manner -- her own sense of art -- her own rich and natural elocution -- and let her be assured of these qualities, as she now possesses them, are all sufficient, when considered simply as the means by which the great end of natural acting is to be consumated -- as the mere instruments by which she may effectively and unimpededly lay bare to the audience the movements of her own passionate heart.

Feeling this – being well assured, from first seeing Mrs. Mowatt as Pauline, that her forte lay in the depicting of passion, we were anxious to see her in Juliet (a part which will yet render her immortal) and were delighted when we saw her announced for Lucy Ashton. But alas! It was Scott’s Lucy and not the Opera Lucy of which we dreamed. The play, as we saw it on Tuesday, is miserably ineffective – and the remembrance of that most passionate and romantic of novels, will intrude itself to render the defects of the dramatization more palpable. We even fancied that we could perceive the depressing influence of this remembrance in the countenance of Mrs. Mowatt. With a bosom full of emotion she seemed to suffer from the total insufficiency of the words of the dramatist to give utterance to her thought. But what was done was done to admiration. The actress lost no opportunity. The appeal to the mother was very noble acting. The signing of the contract and the wild shriek at the entrance of Edgar would have done honor to anyone. The apathetic and mute despair at the end of the play, and during the interview with Ravenswood in the mother’s presence – the dumb uncomprehending wretchedness – the half-conscious rendering up of the broken gold – the laboring anxiety for the relief of words – the final maddening confession, heartbreaking, and death in the lover’s arms – were the teachings not of Mr. Crisp, but of Nature herself – speaking in tones that could not be misunderstood. The audience grew pale, and were betrayed into silence and tears – and if anyone went away sneering that night, it is at least quite certain that he felt ashamed of the sneer.4

Poe also found something to like about Mowatt's peformance in another play on the bill that he thought very bad:

In Juliana – because Juliana is a role altogether out of nature – we did not expect Mrs. Mowat to do much – for not much is there for anyone to do. So far as gracefully dashing demeanor goes, she nevertheless accomplished something – and

Oh what a deal of scorn looks beautiful
In contempt and anger of her lip!5

Poe in 1845The pages of The Broadway Journal recorded one last review of Mowatt at Niblo Gardens dated August 2, 1845.

At Niblo’s Mrs. Mowatt concluded her engagement on the 26th ult. Her last appearance was as the Duchess in “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady,” and Katherine, in “Katherine and Petruchio.” The former of the pieces is one of the best things of its kind. It has all the neat epigrammatic spirit of the French Vaudeville – the ingenuity of its construction is remarkable – its incidents are vivid yet natural – its characters are well- sustained – its sentiments are occasionally noble – and, upon the whole, we know nothing of the same nature which combines so much of truthfulness with so much of pure jeu d’esprit. Not its least merit is its unity to effect.

Nothing, we thing, could be better than Mrs. Mowatt’s personation of the Duchess. The part, to be sure, affords little opportunity for histrionic display – but the astonishment at first merged at Ruy Gomez’ audacity – this astonishment at first merged in indignation – then gradually becoming admiration – and this suddenly converted into love – were points so admirably managed by the fair actress, as to leave nothing to desire. The beautiful lips of Mrs. Mowatt have, we fear, a singular facility in the expression of contempt.6

In case reading Poe's reviews of Anna Cora Mowatt might have persuaded a reader that he was a tender-hearted critic, here's a sampling of the words he had for her supporting cast:

In Ruy Gomez Mr. Crisp was intolerable. He entirely misconceives the character. The Spaniard, as designed by Planche, is a dashing ardent, chivalric cavalier, urged to the extreme of audacity by the madness of his passion, but preserving through all a true dignity, and the most uncompromising respect for the lady of his love. Mr. Crisp makes him an impudent trickster – at times even a vulgar chuckling mountebank – occasionally a simpering buffoon. The Marquis of Santa Cruz was well represented by Nickerson. Miss Taylor spoke and stepped more like a chambermaid than like a prince.7

Not even William Shakespeare was spared a sideswipe:

Even of the “Katherine and Petruchio” as Shakespeare conceived it, we have no exalted opinion. The whole design of the play is not only unnatural but an errant impossibility. The heart of no woman could ever have been reached by brute violence. But, as this drama originally stood, it contained many redeeming traits of nature and truth. These, it was the opinion of Cibber, interfered with the spirit of the thing, and accordingly, he left them out – or if one or two were suffered to remain, our modern mangers unsparingly uprooted them.8

Poe, however ended the review with a sweet farewell for his favorite actress:

In taking leave of Mrs. Mowatt for the present, we have only again to record our opinion that, if she be true to herself, she is destined to attain a very high theatrical rank.9

This was, however, the last documented contact between the two. The Broadway Journal folded in 1846. As he had recomended in his first review, Mowatt was playing to appaulding crowds in England by 1847.  She was touring Europe at the time of Poe's mysterious death in 1849.

NOTES

1. Edgar Allan Poe. "The Drama." Broadway Journal. July 19, 1845, p. 184.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. Edgar Allan Poe. "The Drama." Broadway Journal. July 26, 1845, p. 189.
5. ibid.
6. Edgar Allan Poe. "The Drama." Broadway Journal. August 2, 1845, p. 210.
7. ibid.
8. ibid.
9. ibid.


In which Mr. Poe still admired her beauty and acting, but is less generous on her writings.                                                                                   Being a recounting of both of Mr. Poe's reviews of the inaugural run of "Fashion", with commentary on the ideas and unique style of that remarkable man                                                                               A discussion of Mrs. Mowatt's likely inspiration for the character T. Tennison Twinkle of her much-celebrated play "Fashion"      
Poe's Portrait of Mowatt                                             Poe's Evolving Views on “Fashion”                                       Was Poe T. T. Twinkle?

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For more in-depth information and analysis
 of
Mowatt's life and career, read
The Lady Actress:
Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

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